Makes sense. Thornton’s posted at least 20 goals and 50 assists for seven straight seasons – the longest such streak since Doug Gilmour and Steve Yzerman did that for eight consecutive years in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. He’s accumulated the most points since 2002-03 and no National Hockey League player has scored more points since his debut in 1997.
However, 2010-11 is a different story. One won’t find Thornton’s name amongst the NHL’s top-20 scorers (okay, so he’s one point behind two tied with 53) and he’s just outside the top-10 in assists. Looking at just his points doesn’t begin to describe how important Thornton is to the Sharks.
Yes, Thornton leads the Sharks in scoring, so it’s not like the offense has evaporated. Yes, the Sharks lead the Pacific Division and have won six straight. And yes, the Sharks are 15-2-1 since a 5-2 loss to Edmonton on Jan. 13.
But Thornton has made an impressive mark on the defensive side of the puck. His 89 takeaways, tops in the NHL, is just an example. Only Chicago’s Jonathan Toews (75) and Bryan Little of Atlanta (69) come close.
“He’s committed himself to the defensive side,” Head Coach Todd McLellan said. “He’s committed himself to the hard work, the grinding part of the game. He’s grown that from last year. Unfortunately, it doesn’t show up on the scoreboard when it comes to points. But, his teammates and the coaches recognize the extra effort we’re getting away from the puck and on the defensive side.”
“If you watch the game closely, you know he’s committed to the defensive side of the puck,” Ryane Clowe
said. “He’s doing things right and just the little details you don’t notice that he’s doing.”
“I’ve always prided myself on being a good two-way guy and maybe I’ve tweaked my game a little bit,” Thornton said. “You just work on moving your feet and little things like winning board battles, winning faceoffs and positioning with your stick. Every year, you change your game a little bit to adapt to the way the game is being played. My game, as a whole, is getting better.”
Perhaps Thornton’s career is trending in the same way like Yzerman’s. During the first 10 of his 22 NHL seasons, he had two 60-goal seasons, three 50-goal seasons and scored 100-plus points for six consecutive years. However, starting in 1993-94, Yzerman posted just one 90-point season, but he would be on three Stanley Cup Champions.
“It’s hard work to defend,” McLellan said. “You can’t cheat, you can’t cut corners. You can’t find the easy way out. You have to keep your nose in it and Jumbo has done a good job with it.
“That message has been delivered to a lot of offensive players,” McLellan added. “Yzerman is a prime example. He committed to both sides of the puck. He made other people around him better. As a result, the organization won Stanley Cups. I’m not saying that will happen here, but Jumbo is working towards that.”
And McLellan is right. Thornton’s teammates do notice what he does defensively on the ice. Clowe said Thornton takes short shifts and doesn’t cheat by going up ice before the puck clears the defensive zone.
“Joe is so big and strong and he’s using his size,” Clowe said. “He’s dominating on the faceoff circle and he’s being hard on the opposing centermen. For a big guy, he’s hard to play against. When he plays physical, guys around the League don’t want to play against him. We love the way he’s playing right now, so we don’t have any complaints.
“At this stage of his career, he’s not too worried about getting 120 points or being the League leader in scoring,” Clowe added. “He wants the opportunity to win a Stanley Cup.”
“I’m just working hard every day and trying to get better,” Thornton said. “That’s all you want to do.”
And as far as Thornton’s offensive numbers being a little lower than what everyone is accustomed to seeing, Clowe and his teammates have no issues.
“We’re winning,” Clowe said, “so no one is complaining.”TYPICAL THORNTON
Those who know Thornton well know he’s not consumed with his statistics. So when asked about scoring his 300th goal on Feb. 22 at Detroit, the answer was typical Thornton.
“Once you’re done, you’ll probably think about that a little more,” he said. “You’re just so consumed each day with the standings and with winning games. You can’t really worry about that right now, except probably when you’re 70 years old and look back and think, ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool.’ But not right now.”